As a boy growing up in rural America, I often heard that the only way to be a man in this world is to ask for nothing and work for everything. The men in my family were proud, and almost all of them worked with their hands, often outside. I remember one of my dad’s favorite workplace slur was the word nepotism. I listened carefully when he would speak about how the world rewards those with connections rather than those with merit, and on a few occasions, I saw the grit in my old man’s face as he struggled to maintain the mantra of “if you didn’t earn it, you don’t deserve it” while others succeeded in his stead. As a young man, I took those words to heart, and decided that I would never ask anyone for help getting a job. While I was not keen on following my relations into the laborious arts, I held their views on the righteousness of hard work over handshakes even after my liberal arts education showed me a more complex world, which included what I then saw as the nepotism-related concept of networking.
I am grateful that I learned the value of hard work from those men closest to me, and have always followed that example in my own varied employment, but it didn’t take me long to realize that this world is a lot easier when you have friends looking out for you. After my training and full-year internship as a secondary education teacher, I decided that waking up at 5:30 AM and going to a tenured high school job in suburban D.C. wasn’t for me. I headed out West, in that grand American tradition to seek… well, I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeking. Which is, I think now, the impetus driving anyone out West. The big problem was that I was leaving my hard-earned professional qualifications behind, and had little idea of how to find solid employment outside of education.
For about ten years (including another stint in grad school), I worked a panoply of jobs, ranging from graveyard shift at a junky-frequented motel to a receptionist at a real estate company. I sold diamonds over the internet and built handmade bookcases. Moonlighted as a bouncer at nightclubs and painted houses, despite my pants-wetting fear of ladders. Most of those jobs I obtained through personal connections, even the lousy ones. By using my friends, I knew I had become what my dad and uncles didn’t respect. But, deep down, I suspected that they always knew what I figured out within a few months in the working world: nepotism was how people got jobs.
I bounced along using connections I made, most often at the local pub, until I placed by a temp agency in a mid-sized engineering firm. I had originally gotten the temp agency work through an ex-girlfriend after a string of the lousiest of my lousy jobs, so nepotism had come to the rescue once again. I worked as a project coordinator doing administrative work for a team of mechanical and electrical engineers. It was reasonably enjoyable work that demanded a high amount of planning and communication, both of which are things I enjoy. I worked there for about a year, with a fair amount of professional success, and was then placed on a major public works project for a state government and several major engineering consultants.
The new job was exciting and challenging, and it was the first time that I found myself enjoying work as much as I had enjoyed teaching during my first (and at that time, only) year in education. It was also then that I realized nepotism was an easy way to get your foot in the door for a low to mid-level job, but would never be enough to get me into something real. Into an adult job. A job that would pay the bills instead of just the bar tab. A career.
So, on the advice of a few co-workers, I joined a professional organization which provided mentorship for young people, mostly female, in engineering. Initially I was skeptical, as my father’s mentality had already caused me enough guilt about the years I’d spent glad-handing my way to jobs in direct rejection of his moral stridency. But then I met Katie.
Katie was assigned to be my mentor, and was a successful engineer who’d worked in her field for twenty-plus years. She gave me some good advice on the first day we met, which I still think about today. Over the course of a few lunches, I told her most of the rambling story I’ve written here. When I told her about my dad’s notions and my own issues with using people to get what I needed, work-wise, she clarified something for me, something that changed my entire outlook. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said, “Networking isn’t using people. It’s connecting with people who enjoy doing the same work as you. It’s a way to share your professional life with people who you might never have known in a personal way. Successful networkers don’t use anyone, or expect anything. They help other professionals to create relationships based on respect, and through that, they build a shared profession that’s better for everyone.”
Katie’s explanation was something I needed to hear, a different point of view on a subject I’d always thought I knew, and she inspired me to start building professional relationships with people. She mentored me for about six months, and helped me to create several different opportunities in my fledging network of project managers. She gave me advice on the give and take required to maintain a professional network, and how to be respectful of the opportunities that people provide for you with no expectation of anything in return. Although my career in engineering didn’t pan out for several reasons, her mentorship allowed me to move into a new phase in my life, which (long story short) eventually led to me moving to Asia and returning to the only job I’ve ever genuinely enjoyed, that of teaching.
I continued to apply her lessons to this day, and consistently seek out more advice from others I met in what I can now proudly call my own professional field. While I’m still not the best at maintaining my network (mostly due to laziness, if I’m being honest), I must say that some of the people I’ve met through networking are some of the most interesting and capable people in my life. Being able to see networking as so much more than just using connections to get a job has allowed me to grow and succeed as a professional educator, and to begin helping others who are looking to do the same. After all this time and experience, I think that even my dad would have to agree that successful networking is about respect and enjoyment of one’s work, and can be a wonderful way to enrich a professional career.